- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When West Palm Beach attorney Ted Babbitt travels to Los Angeles this month to take on the Church of Scientology, he said that for the first time in his 52 years of practicing law he has no idea what to expect.
The veteran lawyer said he’s been told he won’t be allowed to call witnesses to shore up his claims that the church duped an Irvine, Calif. couple out of $465,000 to fund its massive operation in Clearwater on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Further, he said it’s unlikely he will be allowed to challenge witnesses the church summons to refute his allegations. He suspects he won’t even be allowed to speak.
The unusual lawsuit against the unusual and controversial church spun out of Babbitt’s control when a federal judge in Tampa ruled that it will be decided, not by a jury in a court of law, but by three Scientologists who understand the teachings of the church’s late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
To Babbitt, the proceedings, which are scheduled to begin Oct. 23, are tantamount to a kangaroo court.
“There’s never been an arbitration (conducted by Scientologists) ever,” he said. “We don’t know what the rules are.”
Because his clients, Luis and Rocio Garcia, left the church, they are considered suppressive persons. Under the rules of the sect, members of the church risk being declared suppressive persons themselves and being banished if they associate with those who have earned the Scientology equivalent of the scarlet letter.
Even sons and daughters say they have been forced to break ties with parents who have decided to leave the church, which has been alternately vilified and fiercely defended by its recalcitrant and steadfast celebrity followers.
On one side are actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Elisabeth Moss, who have defended the church against those who attack it as a corrupt cult.
On the other side, most prominently, is actress Leah Remini, who launched the hit A&E television network show, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” to expose what she claims are nefarious practices that forced her from the church. Luis Garcia and Babbitt have talked to Remini about their allegations, and their interview with her is to be included in an episode of the show airing on Oct. 24, a day after the arbitration hearing begins.
Although the arbitration will be governed by the church’s international justice chief, Scientology leaders readily acknowledge that the church has never held such an arbitration and that Hubbard himself decreed that “A truly Suppressive Person or group has no rights of any kind as Scientologists.” But they insist the church members will be fair.
“The arbitrators will be instructed based on basic Scientology justice principles that they are impartial and they are not going to have any predetermined idea of what to believe or not believe,” testified Mike Ellis, who has served as the church’s international justice chief since 1998. “They’re there to get facts, provide whatever evidence, collect whatever evidence is needed so that they can arrive at a fair conclusion.”
Similar hearings have been held when members who have been declared suppressive want to get back in the fold, testified Allan Cartwright, an Australian with a high school education who serves as the church’s legal director. Over a dozen years, 79 people asked to rejoin the church and 33 were allowed to return, he said.
While calling the concerns Babbitt raised “compelling,” U.S. District Judge James Whittemore said he had no choice but to order that the lawsuit be decided by a panel of church members.
In what is essentially a Catch 22 situation, Whittemore said that in order to accept Babbitt’s claims that the Garcias won’t get a fair hearing because the church has deemed them suppressive he would have to interpret church doctrine. But the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the nation’s courts from interfering with religious dogma.
To consider Babbitt’s arguments “would constitute a prohibited intrusion into religious doctrine, discipline, faith, and ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law by the court,” wrote Whittemore, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. “Accordingly, the Court has no jurisdiction to consider this argument.”
Aside from the constitutional reason, Whittemore said the Garcias were fully aware that any dispute they had with the church would be decided by Scientologists. During the nearly 30 years they were church members, Luis Garcia signed more than 40 documents in which he agreed that any dispute would be decided “solely and exclusively through Scientology’s Internal Ethics, Justice and binding religious arbitration procedures.”
Babbitt acknowledged that Garcia’s signature on dozens of arbitration agreements weakened his pleas to Whittemore, who snared international headlines in 2005 when he refused to order Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube re-inserted in the landmark right-to-die case.
But Babbitt said arbitration rules dictate that the process has to be fair and impartial. He also insists the lawsuit he filed on behalf of the Garcias has nothing to do with intricate church policies, which Hubbard first unveiled in his best-selling 1950 book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”
Instead, Babbitt said the Garcias’ lawsuit is based on a simple, time-honored legal principle: “You defrauded me.”
Luis Garcia, who contributed at least $1.3 million to the church over the years, said he became increasingly disenchanted with Scientology under the leadership of David Miscavige, who took over after Hubbard’s 1986 death. Under the leadership of Miscavage, “the Church of Scientology has strayed from its founding principles and morphed into a secular enterprise whose primary purpose is taking people’s money,” according to Garcia’s lawsuit.
In 2010, Garcia said he’d had enough and decided to leave the church. When he asked for a refund of about $65,000 he had deposited in anticipation of taking future Scientology classes, leaders refused, according to the lawsuit. That spurred an exploration into what become of all the money he had contributed over three decades.
“I realized I had been defrauded, lied to and cheated,” Garcia told The Palm Beach Post.
That amount included $340,000 he donated to help the church build its spiritual center in Clearwater, according to the lawsuit. Known as the Flag Building or the Super Power Building, construction of the 15-story tower began in 1998 but the building didn’t open until 2013.
The project was intentionally drawn out for 15 years so church leaders could “use it as a shill to induce further payments from members,” Babbitt claims in the lawsuit.
The church also preyed on members’ altruism by falsely soliciting donations to help victims of disasters and human rights violations throughout the world, the lawsuit says. The Garcias donated roughly $100,000 to help starving children in Africa and tsunami victims in Indonesia and to block France from banning Scientology, but much of the money never was used for its intended purpose, Babbitt claims in the lawsuit.
The church, he wrote, “accumulated in excess of $1 billion while (the Garcias) and others were fraudulently induced into believing their funds would be spent on humanitarian projects.”
Attorney F. Wallace Pope, who represents the church, declined to comment on Babbitt’s allegations. Church leaders have consistently denied claims that they used the Super Power Project as a fundraising tool or that donations were diverted. The only comment Pope offered about the lawsuit was that it would be fairly decided by church members.
Babbitt and Garcia scoff at such claims. “In their eyes I’m evil incarnate,” Garcia said. “Now, these people are going to hear my case in a fair manner? That’s ridiculous.”
Recognizing their concerns, Whittemore selected the members of the arbitration panel and warned them not to have any contact with Scientology leaders.
“To preserve the integrity of the arbitration, it is important that you not discuss this matter with others, unless directed to by the court,” the judge wrote in a letter to 20 Scientologists who were randomly selected from a list of 500 provided by church leaders. From those who responded to the letter, Whittemore tapped five panelists — three members and two alternates — to decide the case.
Babbitt has asked that each of the panelists be required to sign affidavits, swearing they have not discussed the case with church leaders. He also wants a court reporter to be present to record the proceedings.
Even with those safeguards, Babbitt said the case promises to be unlike any arbitration he has handled in his decades-long career. Ellis, the church’s justice chief, testified that Babbitt could talk to Garcia during the arbitration but “wouldn’t have a function in the procedures.” Recognizing Babbitt’s role will likely be limited, Garcia is preparing a case to present to the panel himself.
The key is getting a decision, Babbitt said. Then it can be appealed.
Babbitt and the Garcias hope an appeals court will reverse Whittemore’s ruling to send the lawsuit to a panel of Scientologists. “I really want to get this in front of a jury,” Babbitt said.
If he prevails, Babbitt said there are a half-dozen couples who want to follow the Garcias into court to pursue their own fraud claims against the church they once revered.
He also said he would sue the Church of Scientology in a California court to recover an additional $1 million that Garcia claims the church took from him on false pretenses. Babbitt had included that sum in the lawsuit he originally filed for the Garcias in federal court in Tampa in 2013 but was forced to drop it from the suit when Whittemore ruled it had been given to the church’s operations in Los Angeles — not Clearwater — and had to be litigated in California.
The judge, however, agreed to allow the arbitration of the Tampa case to be held in Los Angeles because the arbitration panel members lived there.
Although a resolution is years away, Babbitt said he’s not going to give up. “I got this far,” he said of the strange legal journey, which he expects will get stranger. “I’m going to find out where it all leads.”